By Tom Poland
“A new broom sweeps clean, but an old broom knows the corners.” Mom pulled out this old saw when a new preacher attempted wholesale change or a new boss let the old employees go. The rest of the saying, “but an old broom knows corners,” means experience is a valuable thing. How many times has some hotshot leader been shown the door only to be replaced by a person with experience. “Knowing the ropes” comes to mind here.
Mom’s broom axiom came to me as I stood before a house that brought some horror movie to mind. If your newspaper runs my photo, you’ll see what I mean. If it doesn’t, I’m watching broomstraw feather the wind in front of an abandoned two-story house with a dead oak out front. That tree looks like a hanging tree, the kind of tree a volt of buzzards would circle, then perch upon.
That eerie old house brings to mind Halloween witches riding brooms. The association between witches and brooms, I hear, took root in a pagan fertility ritual. Farmers would dance astride poles, pitchforks, or brooms beneath a full moon to encourage crop growth. This “broomstick dance” grew into tales of witches flying through the night to do evil. Well, forget all that.
For me, broomstraw brings to mind Grandmom Poland. I stayed at her farm a lot most summers. In a corner here and there would stand her homemade brooms. They stood not quite a yard high and were held together by bands of inner tube salvaged from Granddad’s old tires. When I picked a broom up, it felt light but strong. It felt balanced, that’s the word, and all it cost was a bit of work.
Grandmom knew the ropes when it came to making a broom. She’d venture into a field of broomstraw, look for good strong clumps, and cut some broomsedge or whiskey grass at ground level and compress an adequate amount together. Next, the inner tubes bound the broomstraw fast. A good shake got rid of seeds and loose straw. Back to the farmhouse she’d stride, new broom in hand, ready to tackle daily life’s debris.
Two things I see as I write. I see a handmade broom. It’s reddish-blond, like a young strawberry blond’s hair, new and filled with vitality. And those bands of inner tube, black as pitch, are set at precise intervals. There it is, a new broom prepared to sweep clean.
The other thing I see?
My grandmother, stooping a bit, to whisk up dust and dirt with quick flicks of her wrist. She wielded her broom deftly, and I can’t know but suspect she took pride in her broom’s craftsmanship. Made with quality in the USA, and when it was worn out, she tossed it into a field to quietly return to nature.
All that was years ago … in the past, a museum of the mind we call Memory.
On my expeditions into the countryside I often pass a field of broomstraw. When I do, handmade brooms rise from the field, not to give witches a ride, but to give my grandmom an implement for getting rid of granddad’s muddy boot tracks and other sweepings of farm life.
Now and then I end up at one of those restaurants that hangs old farm implements, vintage ads, and old black-and-white photos on its walls. I’ve yet to see a homemade broom hanging in a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. Maybe there’s a future in making a few and seeing if anyone wants to hang them alongside old saws, seed sacks, hand-cranked sausage grinders, and the miscellany of things that used to make life work.
Today? You can buy a nylon angle broom for $7 to $16. When its days are done, send it and its plastic or metal handle to the landfill for yet another old way no longer sweeps dust. It bit the dust.
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